On a snowy New York evening in February, Deena Aljuhani Abdulaziz quietly slipped out of a dinner party hosted in honour of Jean-Paul Goude and Carine Roitfeld. Gliding down the sidewalk in a floor length mustard yellow evening gown by The Row, she quickly spots her waiting car and climbs into its back seat.
“It’s been a long day and I’ve only been in New York for less than 24 hours,” says the Saudi retailer, pulling out her two phones to catch up on emails from her team in Riyadh. Since launching D’NA, her iconic members-only store nearly a decade ago, with locations in Riyadh and Doha, Deena has become a serious player within the industry. A regular front row fixture during fashion week, she has carved out a niche for D’NA as an independent fashion voice in the Middle East and beyond, earning her a place on the Business of Fashion’s list of top 500 individuals shaping the global fashion industry.
Exclusive designs by Alexander Lewis for DNAChic.com
“She is a rarity as one of the few Arab women, let alone a woman from the Gulf, to make inroads into a tough business and manage to maintain her presence,” observes Leandra Medine, the influential author and fashion blogger behind The Man Repeller. Yet as Deena prepares to celebrate D’NA’s 10-year anniversary, she is not about to rest on her laurels. Instead, for the last two years she has been discreetly orchestrating D’NA’s reinvention. This month her iconic bricks-and-mortar stores will close their doors on the day Deena launches Dnachic.com, a new concept in online luxury shopping.
“As I was approaching this milestone in my career, I wanted to think about my next move and challenge myself,” confides the Saudi fashion entrepreneur, known for her innovative approach to luxury retail in the Gulf region. In addition to being the first retailer in the Middle East to feature her store on Farfetch.com, Deena has built her reputation with an expert eye for sourcing emerging design talent. Frequently commissioning them to create custom pieces or alter their designs with her clients’ lifestyles in mind, she has been known to introduce limited edition items such as chic abayas by the likes of Marni and Martine Sitbon.
Exclusive shoes by Gianvito Rossi for DNAChic.com
“The fashion industry and retail landscape in the Gulf has changed considerably since I first started out, and I’ve increasingly thought about how I can meaningfully contribute and respond to this shift in the industry,” says Deena, who sees her decision to close her stores and re-launch online as a natural evolution of her business. “A few years ago I began to notice a shift in my clients, who were increasingly shopping online instead of visiting physical stores. Although the Gulf has been slow to embrace online luxury shopping, today Saudi women are frequently purchasing big ticket items from their phones,” she notes, pointing to her expanding international clientele as another reason for launching Dnachic.com.
“Over the years we’ve had enquiries from individuals from LA to Tokyo, because we happened to be the only store in the world carrying a particular dress by a designer,” says Deena, who soon realised she needed to capitalise on D’NA’s growing reputation as
a purveyor of the chic and unique in fashion and accessories. “With Dnachic.com, my intention isn’t to compete with established mega-retailers such as Net-A-Porter or MyTheresa, with their large selection of designer items catering to a broad audience. Instead, I wanted to create a counterpoint to these established luxury ecommerce sites, similar to the role specialised boutiques played as an alternative to large department stores,” observes Deena, who set about recreating the intimacy of a curated luxury boutique online with a particular point of view.
Lakshmi Menon wears dress by Rosie Assoulin for DNAChic.com
“There is so much fashion out there today that we’ve lost that sense of exclusivity and uniqueness. Bringing that sensibility to an online audience is the next frontier. It’s not about being everything to everybody,” says Deena, who sees Dnachic.com as uniquely positioned to respond to an untapped market. Although a number of multi-brand boutiques have sprung up in the Gulf over the last 10 years, she notes that most employ foreign buyers to shop for their Gulf clientele. “Having an understanding of my client’s lifestyle has been key to our success as a store, because it influences what I will buy, not only in terms of looks, but also keeping in mind appropriate sizing and body shape, which perhaps isn’t the case with other retailers.”
To bring her vision to life, Deena has spent the last year flying between Riyadh, London and New York, working with an international team of web designers, ecommerce specialists, writers and graphic designers. Instead of heading back to her hotel after dinner and a packed day of appointments, on this particular evening she is on her way to Long Island where her car pulls up in front of Milk Studios’ second outpost. Inside, fashion photographer John Guerrero, surrounded by a team of assistants, is shooting model Lakshmi Menon posing in a voluminous white-buttoned shirt over a floor length ivory lace skirt by Adam Selman.
Deena Abdulaziz at New York fashion week A/W16
Deena has come to supervise what will be the most visible feature of Dnachic.com’s launch; an atmospheric editorial featuring the statuesque Indian supermodel in looks styled by Deena. “What I find intriguing is that you wouldn’t necessarily identify this look as being Adam’s because he didn’t show it like that on the runway,” she observes, while instructing Lakshmi to roll up her sleeves and pose with her arms folded to emphasise the shirt’s volume from the back. “This is how I would wear it, and this is really what I want to convey through Dnachic.com. Mixing something casual with something almost couture-like is what modern dressing is all about,” she adds, of her unique approach to putting looks together.
“It’s not enough today to simply present looks exactly how the designer showed them on the runway or simply sell a top or a skirt. When I started mapping out what this site would look like, I was constantly presented with formulaic models and told, ‘this is how it’s been done and this is what works’. But that formula doesn’t necessarily reflect a curated boutique experience,” says Deena, noting that most of her customers do not purchase separate items but looks that she herself creates by combining pieces from a designer’s collection in a fresh way that will appeal to her customer. “My clients are too sophisticated for that. They expect to see looks that mix different pieces from a designer’s collection in a chic and modern way, it’s the whole point of why one visits a specialised store.”
Lakshmi Menon for DNAChic.com
Ironically, for this particular shoot Lakshmi Menon bears an uncanny resemblance to the Saudi style icon, with her tanned skin and a neat bob recalling 1920s American actress, Louise Brooks. It is a coincidence not lost on Deena, who chatted with Lakshmi during a short break about the lack of diversity within the fashion industry. “Launching any kind of online platform provides one with a voice, and I knew early on that I didn’t want to simply sell clothes. It was also about widening the conversation surrounding beauty, to include models of colour that my own daughter and other Arab women can relate too,” notes the mother of three regarding choosing Lakshmi, who is amongst a roster of models handpicked by Deena to reflect diverse skin tones in the Middle East.
“What attracted me to Lakshmi wasn’t simply her timeless look and elegance, but also the way she projects strength and wisdom. She’s more mature than some of the top models out there today and there is a worldliness to her that reflects the Dnachic.com woman,” says Deena, who wanted to break the established rules of luxury ecommerce. Amongst them, was the decision to move away from standard clinical shots of garments photographed on models standing in front of a stark backdrop. Instead her looks are shot in movement or cropped in unexpected ways to evoke an emotional response.
Exclusive looks by Awake and Sophie Theallet for DNAChic.com
“Fashion is an emotional purchase, and I knew the site had to be aspirational and capture a luxury experience. I want women to explore Dnachic.com and become inspired,” says Deena, who was one of the first retailers in the world to pick up now-established labels such as Jason Wu and Prabal Gurung. Yet despite her track record for nurturing new talent, she has spent the last few seasons searching beyond the traditional centres of fashion. “What I love the most about my job is discovering new designers and introducing them to an Arab audience. Today I find that some of the most interesting ideas are coming out of places such as Russia and Australia,” Deena says, confirming that labels such as Alena Akhmadullina, Toni Maticevski, Awake and Ellery on her new site.
By now Lakshmi has changed into a powder-blue kaftan by Masterpeace, a young Moscow-based label founded by Evgenia Linovich, who collaborates with Russian artisans. She poses on the floor as Deena fashions a turban on her head, a look inspired by one of her favourite fashion images. “I wanted to recall Irving Penn’s 1951 photograph taken in Marrakesh of his wife Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn, titled Woman in Moroccan Palace,” notes Deena, who has an encyclopedic memory when it comes to iconic fashion moments. “With Deena it’s all about the references to a particular image in Vogue or Harper’s Bazaar from the 1950s or ’70s. That knowledge gives her a certain credibility in the industry. She is so informed about fashion history I always leave feeling as if I’ve learnt something new,” observes Tamu McPherson, the noted street-style photographer and name behind the blog, All the Pretty Birds.
Deena Abdulaziz during a buying appointment for A/W16 at Gabriela Hearst
Early the next morning, while having breakfast in the lobby of her SoHo hotel, Deena points to a stack of books and magazines by her side. “This was really the starting point for the design of the website,” she says, while flipping through pages showing the work of legendary art directors at Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, such as Alexey Brodovitch, Alexander Liberman and Dr Mehemed Fehmy Agha. “Although he is somewhat forgotten today, the Turkish-born Agha was responsible for defining the role of the art director within magazines. During his tenure at American Vogue from 1929-1943, he was the first to introduce double-page spreads, images without borders and clean, modern designs,” notes Deena, pulling out from the bottom of the stack one of her most prized possessions, a copy of the September 1992 issue of American Harper’s Bazaar.
The publication’s inaugural issue under the helm of its new editor in chief, Liz Tilberis, its striking cover featured the model Linda Evangelista elegantly tilting her hand upwards to cup the third A in Bazaar with a single definitive statement, Enter the Era of Elegance. “When I first saw this issue it completely changed my conception of what a fashion magazine should look like with its innovative layouts and typography by Fabien Baron. From 1992-1999 Liz managed to transform Bazaar into a jewel box of ideas and inspiring imagery, and I wanted to recapture that timeless modern aesthetic for Dnachic.com; from the site’s layout, to our newly designed logo and even the packaging,” says Deena, as she prepares to leave for her first show of the day.
Lakshmi Memon for DNAChic.com
At Rosie Assoulin’s presentation held at a gallery space in the Meatpacking District, she snakes past a live piano player and an installation of melting multicoloured candles to make her way to a very pregnant Rosie. “This is the Deena dress,” announces the designer while leading the Saudi retailer through the crowd towards a model wearing a cobalt-blue ball gown sporting a lightening-rod cutout at its bodice. “I got to know Deena as a friend first long before I launched my own line, and she’s one of those women I think about when designing each season. She has always been incredibly supportive and was one the first buyers to pick up my collection,” says Rosie, whose approach to combining easy American sportswear with dramatic couture shapes, has made her a bestseller amongst D’NA’s clients.
Over the course of the day Deena will find herself shuttling between Uptown and Downtown New York attending shows and buying appointments with upcoming American designers such as Brock, Gabriela Hearst and Monse. By 5pm, she’s made her way to Sophie Theallet’s show, held in the wood panelled and marbled hall of a stately Wall Street building, where Umm Kulthum’s melodic voice wafts through the sound system. Deena makes her way to her seat, stopping along the way to speak to fellow editors and retailers such as Linda Fargo of Bergdorf Goodman. By the time the last model has left the runway, she has made mental notes of the pieces she wants to order. “I loved this collection. Sophie really went back to her couture roots this time. She’s a master of cut and drape, and her use of rich silks and velvets is a new departure for her,” Deena enthuses.
Exclusive designs by Mary Katrantzou, Qatari brand The Kayys and Saudi designer Daneh Buahmad for DNAChic.com
The next day, she makes her way to Sophie Theallet’s studio in the Garment District to place her order. “This will probably be one of my most relaxed appointments of the day,” confides Deena, who has known the French New York-based designer for over two decades. “I feel like I’ve watched her grow into a woman. When I first met Deena she was a young girl being fitted for her wedding dress at Azzedine Alaïa’s in 1996,” recalls Sophie who served as Alaïa’s right hand until she moved to New York to launch her own label. “I met a lot of people in the fashion industry long before I opened my store, and having those long-standing relationships has been important to nurturing my business,” says Deena, as she scans the racks of clothes, quickly selecting the pieces that caught her eye.
“As a buyer she is very quick and knows exactly what will work for her customer,” observes Sophie, who has her in-house model try on each of Deena’s selections to discuss possible alterations. “This is the fun part. I love to work with designers to tweak their looks to reflect my clients’ lifestyles. I wanted to bring that same level of customisation to a broader audience through Dnachic.com,” notes Deena of Sophie, who is among a number of designers to have created exclusive looks for her website’s launch. When the site debuts this month, customers will be able to shop one-of-a-kind looks and accessories by Mary Katrantzou, Nicopanda, Gianvito Rossi, Aquazzura and Eddie Borgo, amongst others.
Deena Abdulaziz's invitation to Altuzarra's A/W16 show in New York
Two weeks later Deena is back in Paris, after stops in London and Milan, for another round of shows and buying appointments. Walking up the cobbled pathway to Lebanese designer Rabih Kayrouz’s studio, she shows no signs of slowing down after three weeks on the road. Light streams through the floor-to-ceiling windows in the designer’s showroom, which once housed an experimental theatre. “Rabih really stands out from other Middle Eastern designers, in that he understands modern restrained elegance. The cut and finish of his pieces are always impeccable, and other designers will often ask me about a piece I’m wearing by him,” says Deena, as Rabih walks her through key looks in the collection.
Reflecting Deena’s on-going commitment to nurturing cross-cultural conversations through fashion and design, Dnachic.com will also serve as a platform to bring exposure to the work of emerging design talent from the Middle East and the Arabian Gulf region in particular. Over the years, she has mentored a number of designers and brands from the region such as The Kayys, Wadha Al Hajri, Reem Al Kanhal, Reemami, and Nathalie Trad. For her website’s launch, Bahraini London-based designer Lulwa Al Amin created an exclusive look for Dnachic.com. “Deena was one of my earliest supporters, and as young Arab designers we need the kind of constructive advice that she provides. It was only when I visited D’NA in Riyadh and saw the quality of the designs she carries that I understood why it has become a destination,” says Lulwa, who sees Deena playing a role in bridging cultures.
“My approach to selecting Arab designers for my store is no different than any other designer, in that I’m looking for a feminine modern approach to dressing. But if we don’t support our own talent at home and help them build recognition internationally, then it will be difficult to nurture a credible fashion industry in the region,” cautions Deena, who can be seen during fashion week wearing designs by many of brands she has mentored. “Editors and buyers will stop me to ask what I’m wearing, and they are often surprised to hear it is by an Arab designer,” she observes, believing fashion can play a role in changing perceptions about the Arab World.
Lakshmi Menon wears dress by Brock for DNAChic.com
“While working in the fashion industry, I’ve encountered a number of misconceptions about the Middle East and Arab women in particular,” she says, further explaining the additions to her fashion selections on Dnachic.com, such as a section called The Chic. “It will feature inspiring editorials on chic cosmopolitan women from the Middle East and around the globe who expanded our notions of style and beauty,” explains Deena, who also plans to roll out new features on Dnachic.com in the coming months, such as The Vault, a new concept in vintage shopping where customers can purchase never-before-worn custom evening gowns made exclusively for D’NA over the last 10 years by designers such as Rodarte. “Looking back over the last decade, it’s been an incredible journey, and I’m looking forward to the next 10 years to come,” says Deena as she embarks on a new chapter in her career.
– Alex Aubry